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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Review: The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair (3 of 3)

 [This is part three of a review begun here and continued here.]

“The Continued Story” is rambling, rollicking conspiracy story. A man turns himself in to the police to get locked up, to escape from his alien hunter. The cop won’t do it, at first, because he doesn’t believe the man stole assembly kits from a toy store that disappears the next day—not to mention kits that create hallucinatory episodes like a Lunar Experience, a diamond mask, and so on. The story switches points of view and the alien pursuer’s target, but it doesn’t explain why this should be since the hunter was supposedly interested in the stealer of kits.

“Brenda” [Weird Tales, also appears in Greenberg’s edition of her Best-of and is reprinted by Groff Conklin, Eric Protter, Roger Elwood, Vic Ghidalia, Carol Serling, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, and Robert Weinberg] is a classic. Like “The Hole in the Moon” it hasn’t been reprinted enough, despite half a dozen appearances. Brenda is a well-behaved, good little girl that none of the kids seems to like. One day she’s pursued by a gray man, stinking of rot. Through a bit of cleverness, she captures the man. But when no one else is interested in seeing her find, she lets him loose. She strangely identifies with (loves?) the creature and the ending is creepy and open-ended.

“Stawdust” starts at a crisis moment—a man and a woman face off on a ship, surrounded by dummies, kidskin stuffed with sawdust of what used to be passengers, with both remaining suspects claiming to be innocent—and then reverses to the beginning when it all started. You’d think you were in a contemporary fantasy mystery, but no. We learn that the ship is a starship (leaping history and genres), and that soon enough the culprit was always known. The initial drama was false. When I was learning the field, I was told never to mix SF and magic, and it seems that St. Clair loves to do this. The title is both a clever and awful pun. The ending does turn the story into a minor irony although a more emotionally powerful ending should have been available.

“The Invested Libido” and “The Autumn After Next” are two slightly humorous and thoroughly competent tales. The first immediately constructs a strange world and the man who chose to use Martian psycho-pharmaceuticals to cure his ills only to find it changing him. Literally. To a squid. He sneaks into an aquarium only to get caught. Under psychiatric supervision, he conforms to other shapes. [This story makes one wonder if it has a meta-fictional purpose of explaining why St. Clair switches point of view so often.]

The next tale tells of a wizard who tries to get a village to do spells properly, but they are lazy and don’t listen. Trying should be their reward, the villagers think. Finally, he comes up with a plan that will get them to do spells right, but the best laid plans....  This is fun and well told, but not among her more ambitious works. It’s available to read for free here.

The final story, “The Sorrows of Witches,” tells of a witch queen who loses her lover and tries to revive him through necromancy. Because she needs an heir, she needs a living lover who will become a stumbling block between herself and her lover. Over time, her writing style seemed to improve with solid entertainments although her scope, imagination and ambitions shrank.

How does St. Clair compare to her contemporaries? Was she short-changed? She was better than Isaac Asimov when it comes to technique, but Asimov had a soaring, large-scale, methodical imagination that benefitted most from accumulated effects (his robot stories and the early Foundation books). Both writers suffered from talking heads.

I dipped into C. M. Kornbluth to prepare for this and for future examinations (namely Mark Rich’s biography, C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary). One story of Kornbluth’s troubles me, but he has a strong, immediate evocation of main character and place (even in his worst, early stories)—his non-Earth societies are rich, lived-in. The one story where she rivals Kornbluth in this is “The Invested Libido”. Where St. Clair outdoes Kornbluth is her better ability to stick the endings and her rare use of dialogue tags and adverbs (“Stop using tags and adverbs to describe your dialogue!” the reader growled at Kornbluth menacingly).

Ray Bradbury, whom Campbell compared St. Clair to, was a better writer in nearly every regard except Bradbury’s later work, which seemed less significant although sometimes he stitched together slight stories to greater effects.

How does she compare? She numbers among the era’s better writers, especially if you like that era’s spare writing style—but only a handful of tales here showcase her talents to their best effects.

Since St. Clair passed in 1995 and her work can no longer be edited with her approval without use of a time machine, what she needs is a Selected Stories, St. Clair Reader or Best collection to highlight her work to best effect. Martin Greenberg edited one, but it’s probably time for another. Three here deserve readers and inclusion: “The Gardener”, “The Hole in the Moon” and “Brenda”. A few cases could be made for the importance of others in this collection.

This collection inspired me to read and reread St. Clair. To follow my progress, look here to see the results of my search to hunt down some of her best work.

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